15. Scratch Ticket Radio #5: Omens and Openings

     As long-time readers know, the rules of Scratch Ticket Radio are simple. During a trip to a record store, I have $10 to spend on used 45s.  Taken together, these become “the ticket.”  Then, as if taking a quarter to a scratch ticket, I listen to each song to determine if it is a good tune or not.  If I come out with more keepers than duds, the ticket as a whole can be considered a winner. For this edition, I’m adapting the nature of the game.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

     When my father got married for the second time, I was his Best Man. I was in Eighth Grade, so I think it was some kind of attempt at bonding rather than a public announcement that I was actually his sounding board and right-hand man. In addition to the strangeness of being asked to play that role, he also gave me a watch as a present. I have never been a watch-wearing kind of guy, so that was a sign that he didn’t know me very well. Then around four months after the wedding, the watch stopped working. I took that as a different type of sign. It seemed a bad omen, and sure enough, not long after, I became estranged from him for a time and he ended up getting divorced. Some years later, just prior to his third marriage, his then fiancé told me about a box of records she still had from her first husband. He was a radio DJ back in 50’s and early 60’s, and so had a ton of 45s. Whether on purpose or through apathy, she ended up with the records when they got divorced. She knew I liked music, so she wanted to pass them along to me. It was a nice gesture, but when I got the box I was thrown for a loop. They were all moldy. Another bad omen. As it came to pass, their marriage lasted less than two years.

     Although they were gross to look at, I diligently worked to clean them. This required many hours on the back porch of our apartment in Cambridge, wearing a mask and rubber gloves. I used a mixture of bleach and elbow grease. One day I almost added rubbing alcohol as a second-level cleanser, and it was a good thing I didn’t because that combination creates chloroform [Today’s Science Tip!]. Because I have slight OCD, I didn’t want to listen to any of the records before I had cleaned all of them. OK, that might be more than slight OCD. Unfortunately, not long after I finished scrubbing the last record, we had to move and the records got packed up again. They went back to my Dad’s house, unlistened to, and stayed there as we moved to Sacramento and then to New Jersey. It was only about 20 years later that I got my hands on them again.

IMG_20210806_132112776     At that point, there was no way I was going to take the whole batch. There were too many of them, and our current apartment is not that large. I needed to select which records to bring home, and which to leave for my Dad’s future yard sales (or however they will be gotten rid of). I sat down and rifled through the collection, looking for songs that I liked, artists that I wanted learn about and labels that were striking. I also grabbed things that seemed a bit goofy. Here is a photo of the pile. There were 191 45s in total. I think it was about half of what was in the box. The flower vase is intended to give a sense of the size. 

     I then preceded to work through this stack in regular Scratch Ticket Radio fashion. I listened to each side, duly noting what songs were winners and which were duds. As you can imagine, this took some time. I found I could only do a certain amount each day, because after reaching saturation, I would want to quickly skim them. To stop myself from skipping around to find tunes I thought I might like (which would have introduced some level of pre-listening bias), I organized the labels in alphabetical order and worked through them that way. Here are the totals and a handy real-life bar chart.

              IMG_20211001_121206196Both sides good: 8  (4%)

              One side good: 28 (15%)

              Neither side good: 155 (81%)

     OK, so that’s a pretty bad Scratch Ticket. Certainly not a winner. And these were the most promising records from the collection as a whole. All those hours cleaning, lugging boxes around and working through a big pile of 45s for 44 good songs. Was it all worth it?

   Screen Shot 2021-11-03 at 3.11.00 PM  At the outset, I was excited to start the process. Presumably for planning purposes, the DJ ex-husband had handwritten notes on each of the singles about the style, tempo and if the song was a hit. He had labeled the majority of them “R&B,” so I was very disappointed to find out that almost none were. So many of the songs were mild-tempered swing and milquetoast pop that it often felt like I was stuck listening to an entire Flag Day Marathon of The Five Neat Guys from SCTV. Even though he had a strange definition of R&B, I have to give him some credit because he only wrote “good” on a few records. Many of the records were promotional copies, so he had gone through the same process that I was now doing. There were so many different labels and so much dross, it gave me a clear sense of how many people were trying to get a piece of the pie at that time. This is the stuff that now serves as the vinyl humus that crate diggers sift through in their search for the good stuff.

     Some of the 44 worthwhile tunes were really great. Pride of place has to go to Reet Petite by Jackie Wilson. I have liked this song for a long time, and after listening to too many drab and dull tunes, it was a welcome relief when its turn came. On a record, even one that had been moldy and then scrubbed, it came jumping out of the speakers. I was also happy to get a vinyl version of  Boom by Lee Andrews (Questlove’s Dad) and Little Star by the Elegants. I only heard Boom for the first time about ten years ago, but I had known Little Star since I was very young. For that reason I had assumed the Elegants were big stars back in the day, but this was the only hit they had. I’m not huge into this type of music, but I find this song to be captivating. It sounds simultaneously wistful and confident. 

     More important than the songs I already knew were the songs I was hearing for the first time. Each was a potential opening. They could turn out to be a great song that alters the way I hear music or a chance to learn something new about music history. Indeed, looking for information about the song, artist or label often brought to light unexpected connections. One example of this is Rock All Nite by Shirley and Lee. It is a peppy little number, but your results will vary depending upon what you think of Shirley’s very, very nasal delivery. Sometimes I dig it, other times I can’t stand it. Some people have suggested that the alternating male/female leads and the contrast in their voices had an influence on Jamaican music of the 60’s. I can hear it, and their earlier tune I’m Gone was even covered by Jamaican singer John Holt. After the duo split, Shirley (Goodman) worked as a back-up singer for acts like Sonny and Cher and Dr. John. She later sang on Exile on Main Street before retiring from the industry.

     For another example, I feel like I should have known Telephone Baby by The Johnny Otis Show, but I did not. As with Lee Andrews, Johnny Otis is also the father of another famous musician (Shuggie Otis), but more importantly he pretty much did everything in music business. This includes, but is not limited to, singing, producing, DJing, hosting TV shows and discovering talent (including Jackie Wilson). Otis has been called the Father of R&B. He was of Greek descent, but grew up in an African American neighborhood and lived as an African American. He called himself “Black by persuasion.”  He explained: “I was around 13 when the ugly head of racism really reared up…I was told very diplomatically at school by a counselor that I should associate more with whites. After that I left and never came back to school. I never felt white. I wouldn’t leave Black culture to go to heaven. It’s richer, more rewarding and fulfilling for me.” I’m thankful I got a chance to listen to this song, because it enriched my understanding of the sociology of race in the United States.

   Not every song led to such rich connections, but several of the good tunes still provided interesting information. Save My Soul by Jack Scott and the Chantones is a nice little number. I love the economy of this era, when many songs clock in at under 2:00. I had no idea who he was, but he is in the Canadian Song Writer Hall of Fame and he had a number of gold records. I also like both sides of a single by Katie Watkins. Not much is known about her, and it possible that she only recorded four songs. Snake Blues is one of them. Trying to Get You Off My Mind is another. Strangely, you don’t hear Watkins’ voice on Snake Blues even though it is credited to her. The record notes that Watkins is accompanied by “Texas Red and Jimmie” so presumably one of them is the singer. “Texas Red” was actually a pseudonym for Sax Kari, who wrote both songs. Kari’s other pseudonyms include Ira Green, Dirty Red Morgan and Candy Yams. He was behind some novelty records and ended up managing Esquerita, among other things. Watkins seemingly disappeared without a trace, but there were Candy Yams sightings as late as the 1990s.

Screen Shot 2021-11-03 at 3.11.04 PM    Ponytail, by Muvva (Guitar) Hubbard, is a solid, if somewhat generic, stroll. Here the backstory is perhaps more interesting than the song itself. Muvva Hubbard was a pseudonym (who’d a thunk?) for Don Costa, who was a producer and a conductor for Sinatra. He also played on Vaughn Monroe’s popular recording of Ghost Riders in the Sky. However, I am most pleased to know that he was the man behind Music to Break a Lease, which has one of the greatest covers in LP history. 

     Although it didn’t lead to any new insights, I was happy to find I Love You So Much by Ivory Joe Hunter in the pile. I have had a soft spot in my heart for him since my days as a DJ at my college radio station. I remember playing something by him (probably Since I Met You Baby) and a fellow early twenty-something DJ looked at me and said, “How old are you?” Well, I guess I’m always loving-Ivory-Joe-Hunter years old.

     Of course, there were a number of songs that were noteworthy because they were downright odd. Only one was the good kind of odd. White Lines by Bobby Scott is one of those haunted types of 50’s tunes, atmospheric in its storytelling about a mysterious passenger and a car crash. Scott also wrote the original music for A Taste of Honey (for which he won a Grammy) and co-wrote He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I wouldn’t have expected the same songwriter to be behind all three, but we contain multitudes, right?

     I wished there were more songs like White Lines in the stack, but many were straight up goofy. For example, Sunburned Lips by Jerry Diamond is simply about not being able to kiss because of sunburned lips. As far as I can tell, there is no subtext at all here. Similarly, Hoopa Hula by Betty Johnson is subtext free, as it is indeed a song about hula hoops. However, I do have to admit that it wasn’t until I heard the song’s faux Hawaiian melodies that I understood the hula hoop to have anything to do with the dance, so there’s that going for it.

    Screen Shot 2021-11-03 at 3.11.07 PM Even goofier is The Howl by Johnny Eager. The silly howls brought to mind another favorite from SCTV – Count Floyd (who I just learned cut a reggae Christmas song and some other tunes).  And as Count Floyd himself would say, “Do you want to see something scary, kids?” Well, one of the records I grabbed was Bigelow 6-2000 by Little Brenda Lee. The label indicates she was nine when the song was cut, which includes her telling people to give her ring at that number if they want some of her good lovin’. Unbelievably exploitative and creepy. I’m not even going to provide a link – you don’t need to hear that mess. Scary, indeed.

      Near the end of the process, I was burnt out. Yes, it is always a rush to be introduced to a great song, and learning new things is always fun (e.g., Johnny Nash was also an actor and produced records in Jamaica), but at a certain point it started to feel like a drag and I just wanted to be done with the whole project. Then something unexpected happened. Listening to Anna (El Negro Zumbon) by Silvana Mangano (from the movie Anna), I recognized that it was sampled in Frontier Psychiatrist  by the Avalanches. Of course, this was a really, really small thing, but it made that day’s crate digging worthwhile. The potential for a similar random endorphin hit had me back at the turntable the next day. What a sorry case.

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